Business as Usual for Southwestern in Tight Summer Job Market

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Southwestern salesman Pedro Vega goes door-to-door in Wilson County.

Southwestern salesman Pedro Vega goes door-to-door in Wilson County.

It’s been a tough couple of years to find a summer job. But a Nashville-based publisher still can’t get enough help from college students.

This job is grueling – door-to-door sales, 13.5 hours-a-day, six days a week, and no guaranteed paycheck. But the Southwestern Company has been a launching pad for some very successful people. Pedro Vega hopes to be one of them.

“I love my job, I love my job, I love my job, I love my job,” Vega says to himself, driving down the back roads of Wilson County.

Vega has Post-It Notes of Southwestern slogans and famous quotes stuck all over the dashboard. One says “successful people form a habit of what unsuccessful people aren’t willing to do.” How about working through lunch?

This recent Texas A&M grad cracks open his Tupperware container. With a mouthful of bologna and white bread, Vega pulls in a driveway, sprints to the front door with his bag of book samples and says a little prayer.

“Day by day, day by day, by the grace of God, by the grace of God, I’m getting better and better,” he chants.

Breaking Down on Price

Southwestern started out selling Bibles, but the company left religion for homework help books. Moms like Kathy Barrett don’t mind listening to the pitch about investing in their child’s education…until it comes to price.

“I completely agree with the whole investment part,” Barrett says. “But if you’re asking me can I hand you $460 today, no.”

The job is a 10 week lesson in rejection. Salesmen do well to get two “yeses” a day, which is why they’re instructed to sit down with at least 30 families between sun up and sun down. Talk to enough people; someone will buy.

In an auditorium on the campus of Tennessee State University, the Southwestern sales force trains for one week at the start of the summer.

Southwestern CEO Dan Moore gives the final sendoff to the summer salespeople.

Southwestern CEO Dan Moore gives the final sendoff to the summer salespeople.

Before scattering around the U.S., they learn how to keep their spirits up by talking to themselves, repeating lines like, “the solution to every problem is behind the next door.”

Trainees role play to practice negotiating with customers who say they don’t have the money.

Old School

“I won’t cash the check until next month if that works better for you, Mrs. Jones,” says Anna Lee from Vancouver.

Lee is just one in a workforce of 2,500. While they’re all young students, this company is old school. Southwestern only sells its books door-to-door and delivers them by hand.

Students live with host families, which is an improvement. Sales director Lee McCrosky says in the old days, they’d ask their last customer if they could spend the night.

“During the Reconstruction era, essentially they were selling Bibles plantation to plantation,” he says. “The south was devastated, so Confederate soldiers who weren’t maimed or wounded, that was the only way they could pay for school.”

In a century and a half of existence, Southwestern has racked up an alumni list with many conservative figures – Texas Governor Rick Perry, Ken Starr – who investigated President Bill Clinton, Brentwood Congressman Marsha Blackburn and Christian author Max Lucado.

Dan Moore did his time selling door-to-door. He’s now the CEO and always gives the final sendoff – basically a warning.

No Fun

“You’ll go up to some door. Just before you knock, a truck will come out of the driveway,” he says. “There’s a bunch of people your age, guys and girls, and they’ve got towels and they’ve got their swimsuits on and they’re going to go off to the lake and have a really good time, and there you are with your book bag.”

“Don’t go,” Moore says.

Any activity unrelated to sales is strongly discouraged, even calling home during the work week. That’s what Sundays are for.

While the company advertises the experience as life changing, the risk is all on the student to do well. They’re essentially running their own small business.

“A person makes money according to the results they get,” Moore says. “We are a wholesaler. So the money they make is the difference in what they sell them for and what they are charged for it.”

Three in ten don’t make it past the first few weeks. Those who leave early often do so with hard feelings. At the Website SouthwesternCompanytruth.com, many of them share testimonies about losing money, facing upset homeowners and encountering unfriendly dogs.

Pedro Vega says he’s been barked at plenty in three summers, but never bitten. Money can make the hazards seem more bearable. Vega took home $22,000 as a rookie and he was hooked. He says the job has also made him an “emotional giant.”

“I’m not like most people,” he says. “Most people are sad. They’re miserable. They’re depressed. I don’t care. I’m one of the coolest people Mrs. Jones is going to meet probably all summer but I’m definitely going to be the coolest person she meets today.”

There are still lots of Mrs. Joneses to see with several weeks left in the Southwestern selling season.

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